Professor Kevin W. Tharp is uniquely positioned to meet the moment. With 20 years of experience learning and teaching technology, communication, and social interaction, and currently as an associate professor in the department of communication technologies at University of Wisconsin–Stout, Tharp has shared his expertise in online learning by creating the Crash Course in Teaching Online. Tharp designed this free resource to help professors as they rapidly adapt to remote teaching as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and much of the advice Tharp offers can be applied to working remotely in general.
“By chance, the things that I have done have put me in a position to help other people,” said Tharp during a conversation with Business Officer on Monday, April 13, 2020—one month after President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency. Tharp shared some pointers for moving teaching and working online, some of the ways online teaching models are more effective for reaching a diverse student body, and how the coronavirus may impact teaching and working in the long term.
Making the Shift to Online
There are many advantages to online teaching, which, according to Tharp, when done well can be even more effective than face-to-face learning. At UW–Stout, classes are taught either online or in person. Tharp teaches both types of courses and begins by designing the online version because it requires a higher degree of planning and organization. He then adapts that online course to an in-person environment. Tharp recognizes that, in this time of massive and immediate pedagogical change, teachers who have already planned their courses as face-to-face meetings may have a difficult time reverse engineering them for online, and this is certainly not the ideal way to design an online course.
Still, Tharp emphasized that, “This can be done, and be done well,” as he provided a few key recommendations to educators as they adapt their in-person content to a remote model:
- Start where you’re at. In our rapidly networked environment, some tools are getting a lot of attention. When thinking about which tool to use for which job, Tharp is guided by the rule that form should follow function. “Use the tool that does what you need to accomplish,” he noted. “While Zoom and Microsoft Teams, for example, may work well for conversations, they don’t necessarily work well for lectures.”
- Remember this is a process. Just as they have done for their in-person classes, teachers will benefit from self-evaluating and learning from their online experiences. What worked and what didn’t? What can be changed for next semester? As you make changes, try fixing just one thing at a time. When evaluating a new technology, Tharp recommends asking the same question he asks himself: “Is this tool going to make me more efficient, or is it going to take me more time to use?”
- Be generous with yourself. “We are all our own strongest critics,” said Tharp, “but you can’t go from never having done anything online to being the best online instructor in the world.” Remote teaching requires more preparation than an in-person lecture. “Coming to class equipped with your knowledge and no major preparation just doesn’t work online,” said Tharp, and our current circumstances haven’t allowed users the opportunity to do that essential work on the front end.
- Prioritize the social experience. When migrating work to an online model, educators and employers tend to consider technology first. But these are socio-technical systems. Whether for teaching and learning or running a business, equal or greater focus must be placed on the social components. “The goal is to use tools in a way that helps to enhance our social interaction,” said Tharp, “because that’s what helps people to feel like they are in something together.”
As educators are becoming familiar with remote teaching and learning, this is also an opportunity to explore some of the ways that online teaching can better reach students.
Tharp knows that many of his students, especially now, are not be able to dedicate several hours at a time to his class. He has found that his students respond more positively to and are more engaged with material when it is presented in shorter units—such as a 10-minute talk followed by an activity and then a short reading.
This is a learner-centered model for presenting material—one that considers the student’s needs and situation. “If a student is busy taking care of someone who is sick or suddenly finds their work schedule conflicts with their class schedule, then the traditional model of a two-hour class in a lecture hall actually creates a barrier to learning,” said Tharp.
Online teaching tools allow teachers to create the content in a way such that students can engage with it when they are able. By building in the flexibility students need to meet their academic goals, teachers are making the material more accessible to those who are learning in diverse circumstances. Whether because a student’s learning has been disrupted by coronavirus or because a student is managing learning differences or external demands on their schedule, the inherent adaptability of online tools allows teachers to meet students where they are at.
The adaptability that online platforms provide can also benefit businesses as they communicate and build relationships with users and clients. When trying to tell a story or share knowledge, the degree of organization and thought that is required to do so online can be an advantage because it allows for the content creators to create, revise, and adapt that content as needed, ultimately creating efficiencies and reinforcing bonds. When Tharp notices there is an issue with the way students are understanding his class content, for example, he can revise that content in real time to ensure that future users will be engaging with an improved, more effective version.
Usually a student will reach out to let Tharp know there is some kind of issue that has created a barrier to their learning. “In this way my content is improved by crowdsourcing with my students,” said Tharp, “and it also builds in a great deal of efficiency in that I don’t have to repeatedly address that same problem with each student.” Perhaps even more valuable, especially in a time of social distancing, is that being able to respond promptly to students’ needs builds bonds with his student users, said Tharp, because “they recognize that I value their input into how I can do things better.” Whether it is student users responding to online class assignments or clients engaging with a business’s online presence, the responsiveness that online allows can translate into opportunities to create connections with users and add value to your brand.
What the Future Holds
Looking past the first months of immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic, Tharp thinks it will be much more difficult for those who have resisted embracing technology for work and school to continue to do so. Tharp has observed that many educators, though not committed to teaching entirely online, have seen some advantage to using technology in their teaching. He anticipates that this contingent will grow as it sees more ways “to use technology for what it can serve.” Additionally, Tharp noted, “it is going to be harder for someone to stake out ground in the ‘I’m not using technology for education’ space,” and those that do will likely get some pushback.
One of the changes Tharp anticipates is that many students will move to more technology-focused degrees. “All of a sudden, people are realizing how important it is to be able to communicate digitally.” Tharp expects recruitment to increase in his own program of digital marketing technology. It is clearer than ever before how salient these skills are to every single business. “People with these communication skills who are familiar with the processes of socio-technical systems are going to be much more highly employable and have higher starting salaries because they will be able to come in and make an immediate difference.”
“We don’t know what the post-pandemic world will look like, but it’s not going to look the same,” said Tharp. “Nobody knows if we will be able to go back to school in the fall, and if we can’t go back to face-to-face teaching, how do we adjust our pedagogy?” Because technology shifts so quickly, much of Tharp’s teaching is designed to help his students learn processes as opposed to specific tools.
Tharp is hopeful that by sharing some of the lessons he has learned throughout his career using online learning models, educators, employees, and employers will be able to do what he is training his students to do: to be prepared to approach the horizon and step into the unknowable other side, “because they have the knowledge and the skills that equip them to adapt to the future, no matter what it brings.”
KIRSTEN HILGEFORD is associate editor for Business Officer magazine.